The other day I found myself thinking, “What a time to be alive!” as I watched my oldest child make a series of online slideshows for some of his teachers. He couldn’t have been happier to be writing, creating hilarious art, and even adding poetry to his creations. Outside of school time! Just for fun!
Before you think I live in some idyllic digital parenting universe though let’s be clear that my buoyant mood didn’t last forever. The next week could not have felt more different. I was tired from work, screen time power struggles were in full tilt, and I was suddenly more than eager to make big sweeping changes. I was tempted to shout, “No more screens!” followed by silently and methodically shutting down every device I could find.
While tempting, I was glad that I didn’t employ this method in real time. Instead, after some sleep and a bit of perspective, our family found some time to revisit our digital habits. I knew that following the same advice I give lots of parents in workshops would help my own family too: “It is so tempting to just want to get rid of everything…but you might want to consider choosing one or two spaces and times that mean the most to your family and start by going screen free there. And don’t forget to choose at least one way that you want to start enjoying screen time more together too.”
Don’t get me wrong, I love soaring vision and lofty goals (I make them in my head all the time) but the science around screen time, goal setting and habit change can help us make changes that are far more likely to stick. So if you want to change anything in the new year, you’d be better off substituting a few key changes for grand resolutions. Indiscriminate unplugging might feel good at the time but science tells us that it won’t do us much good – not only would it rob my oldest of his creative slideshows but the devices aren’t likely to stay that way for long. What can we do instead?
Beware of broad “screen time” goals
The term “screen time” is useful as a broad category to orient someone quickly the topic. However once you start asking specific questions, the term loses its usefulness rapidly. This is because “screen time” is a catch-all term that encompasses all kinds of digital activities – some we might want to cut back on and others not so much. Think about the differences between scrolling mindlessly through stranger’s posts and advertisements as opposed to storyboarding, shooting, and editing a video with friends. While both of these are considered screen time, it’s clear that one is much more valuable than the other.
The other challenge with the term “screen time” is that we tend to measure success in terms of reducing minutes per day or hours per week. While a helpful baseline, this doesn’t help us understand when, where, and how kids use screens, something that shapes outcomes in profound ways. For example, my child might have less screen time overall, but if they are up all night texting with friends they aren’t likely to see much benefit.
But isn’t reducing screen time still a worthy goal?
It’s not that I don’t think that there are benefits to reducing screen time. The average teenager spends more than seven hours a day with entertainment media, so there is certainly lots room for improvement. But according to the latest brain science, we’d be better off focusing on one or two strategic changes rather than walking around the house unplugging devices in a fit of frustration. They will likely be plugged back in before we know it.
Instead consider starting in the places where the research says we get the most benefits from going screen free. Make your choices in consideration not only of what you don’t want but what you do want as well. For example,
- Meal times (connection)
- Bedtime (restoration)
- Study time (focus)
- Free time (emotional regulation, connection, stress recovery)
Okay, now what?
Once you’ve gotten more specific about your goals, following through requires that you exert willpower and make decisions that align with them. You can thank the part of your brain right behind your forehead, the prefrontal cortex, for this skill. This is the seat of executive function and helps us manage our impulses and move towards our goals.
While we human beings fancy ourselves goal-oriented and strategic thinkers, we actually live much of our lives on autopilot. This makes sense. It would take too much brain power—and would be exhausting–to engage our executive function for every single decision in our lives. Since the brain is built for efficiency, we outsource most of our daily actions to the basal ganglia, the part of the brain in charge of habits.
Use the power of habits to get to your goal
From the brain’s perspective, reaching a new goal requires “top down” pre-frontal cortex executive activity to override an automatic “bottom up” set of habits driven by the basal ganglia.
In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg, describes the three-step “habit loop” in our brains. First there is a cue, followed by a routine, and finally there is a reward. The reward motivates us to repeat the behavior in the future. Once these three steps are rehearsed over and over again a habit is born and the behaviors are more likely to unfold automatically.
Here are some tips for success if you want to change your habits:
- Be specific. Instead of a general resolution like, “I’m going to reduce screen time,” try, “I’m going to put away digital devices during meal time.”
- Make it achievable. Changing everything at once doesn’t set your prefrontal cortex up for success. Start with one or two small but influential changes.
- Think in terms of the three-step habit loop. Identify the cues and rewards and then change the routine in between. For example, the kids start washing their hands for dinner (cue) so you put your phone or tablet in a basket outside of the dining room (new routine) and begin dinner by saying what you are grateful for or sharing “highs and lows” of the day (reward of connection).
- Rewards aren’t bad. New Year’s resolutions that require lots of willpower with no rewards aren’t likely to stick. Don’t shy away from healthy and reasonable rewards that feel good. This will help your brain stick to the new routine.
- Make a plan for obstacles. Give your prefrontal cortex something to think about in the face of challenges. Otherwise old habits will probably kick in. “I will make sure that all of our phones are on silent so that we are tempted to respond when one of us inevitably gets a notification.”
- Think in terms of habits, not just huge goals. If my goal for the year is to “get rid of all screens” not only is that unrealistic and nearly impossible, it’s also not going to help me identify a new habit. On the other hand, if I commit to a habit of “putting my phone in the basket before dinner every night” I just might get there.
- Make it public. Have a conversation as a family about the changes you want to make so that everyone can brainstorm habits that will support the new routine. You might consider making a family media agreement and hanging it where everyone can see it.
- It takes practice. If you aren’t successful at first, don’t give up. Instead use it as an opportunity to learn about the habits that drive your behavior. Maybe you need to look at different cues or experiment with different rewards to make it stick. It also takes time to make a new habit the “default” in your brain.
- Watch and celebrate cascading changes. Oftentimes small habit changes may unleash other positive changes in your life.For example, connecting with your kids at dinner, moving your body daily, reflecting at the end of the day can trigger many beneficial side-effects.
Returning to my conversation with the parent after a workshop, why would I suggest that she also identify specific ways she could enjoy media more with her kids? Doesn’t that go against the whole “cutting back” goal? Not necessarily. Kids don’t just need less media, they also need opportunities to reap the benefits with media mentors who will guide them through digital spaces. When our interactions around media are dominated by, “TURN THAT THING OFF!” we lose opportunities to see and reflect back digital strengths, talk about what our kids are seeing and doing, and use media time as an opportunity to build connections through an activity our kids enjoy immensely.
So certainly let’s set screen time goals in the new year. But let’s do ourselves a favor and get specific, build habits, and don’t let reducing screen time get in the way of connecting – through media and without it.